Banking on the Phone; The Story of a BBC Journalist Turned Activist- Shubranshu Choudhary
Shubranshu Choudhary, a BBC-journalist-turned-activist, felt strongly about the absence of a medium for tribals to communicate with those in authority, and the wider world. “There are very few tribal journalists, and mainstream journalists often don’t understand their language. When I worked with the BBC and travelled to other countries, we used the help of local journalists for translation. But the dialects of the tribals are often not understood outside the community,” he explains. “The lives of the tribals and urban journalists are so removed from each other that, for an outsider, the context is hard to appreciate.” With an estimated 100 million tribals in the country, a solution to this was urgent.
In trying to create the right forum for marginalized communities, Shubhranshu was clear he wanted to go the ‘oral’ route. “Poor people, especially tribals, are oral communities. The educated class focusses on reading and writing, but the majority are more comfortable speaking and listening,” he says.
Although he wanted to use the radio, the laws were not conducive for community radio to grow. So he started out online, by setting up an online discussion group CGNet (or Chhattisgarh Net) in 2004 for people to exchange views on issues related to the state. But realising the dismal reach of the Internet, Shubhranshu stumbled upon Audio Wiki, a technology platform developed by Microsoft Research’s India Lab and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that enables phones to record and listen to messages. That’s how CGNet Swara started. It has a Bengaluru phone number on which listeners call and are given two options: 1 to record, and 2 to listen. What’s unusual, though, is that listeners can contribute information as well. Recorded messages come to the Bengaluru server where trained journalists access the system using a web-based interface. A verification and review process follows and once a report is approved, it’s available for playback over the phone. Translated versions are also available on the CGNet Swara website. According to Shubhranshu, 11,000 unique users have registered on the site in the past two years.
40-something Shubranshu Choudhary is no stranger to Chhattisgarh or journalism. But, as a veteran journalist for The Guardian and BBC, among others, few would have thought he would combine the two. Having studied in tribal schools of Chhattisgarh, he knew he wanted to bridge the alienation that tribals feel from mainstream media. A Knight Journalism Fellow, Shubhranshu also launched an initiative with the help of the Knight International Journalism Fellowships, a programme of the International Centre for Journalists.
A CGNET SWARA report moved a Mumbai listener, Priyanka, to intervene successfully in a midday meal scam. CGNet reports were behind the arrest of a headmaster charged with molesting a girl; villagers say now officers call them and ask them about any complaints, when earlier they had to make umpteen visits to their offices.
The Way Forward
For enterprising government officials, CGNet Swara has become a source for tracking grassroots progress. Rajim, a villager who helped many people record their stories online, even received a call from the state chief secretary: “He called me and promised to take action.” Shubhranshu is also hopeful that mainstream media will use CGNet Swara to pick up stories, especially in conflict areas, where media access is limited. “In March 2011,” says Smita Choudhary of CGNet Swara, “CGNet Swara got calls that tribal homes were being burnt in villages around Tadmetla. A year earlier, 76 CRPF jawans were killed by Maoists in Tadmetla.” The Hindu andThe Times of India carried news stories relying heavily on these firsthand citizen reports.
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